Catfish burning (2/2)

Catfish burning 2/2

Anyway, one day, I talked to Jimmy about the Denis incident. I said: “Damn, Jimmy, for Christ’s sake, I know I’m a French idiot and I know I’m in Mississippi, and I know of ‘nigger’ here and ‘nigger’ there, but what the fuck gives with you and young Denis?”

Jimmy thought about it for a long time. “You’re looking for more work and more money, right?” Jimmy only asked me.

Well, that was the case so I said “Yes.”

He said: “O.K., meet me at my home next Saturday morning at 4 am, I need help to sand the ponds.”

Sanding the ponds, what the fuck was that! “I’ll pay you per hour as usual,” Jimmy said. I said O.K.

So I learned that the ponds were catfish ponds. Jimmy Clark, like many in Dixie, had a side business of raising catfish in fish farms. It is said that in Iceland half of the population reads what the other half is writing. In Mississippi, I guess, half the population eats the catfish the other half is raising.

So sanding a pond means emptying it to the purpose of cleaning it up. As the water level reduces, with a net, you have to get the catfish out of there.

So, next Saturday morning, in the heart of Mississippi, I met Jimmy at 4 am by the catfish pond. Jimmy would have been from Iceland, I would have read a book.

There was a good moon and Jimmy gave me a pair of tall water boots, told me to hold my side of the net and soon him and I, each from one side of the pond, started pulling. I did not know but sanding is hard work.

25% of the water was already gone, fish were numerous in the net and, as we came close to the other end of the pond, they were sprawling in there. “Teach them how to fish,” said the good lord… So Jimmy and I started to pick up catfish by the ears and throw them in nearby prepared drums. I was half scared at first that those fish would bite me but they were no piranhas.

After this first pass, we smoked cigarettes while waiting for the water level to go down another notch. Then we went on and got going for a second pull, which revealed itself harder than the first one. We then had to move the drums, full ones and new empty ones. We didn’t talk much, this was commanding work, hard work. I knew Jimmy was happy that I was there to help him. Fish were sprawling like maniacs.

Anyway, we were smoking again and there were yet no signs of dawn when, all of a sudden, I saw something coming out of the bush.

“Jimmy, what is this?” I asked.

“A coyote,” said Jimmy.

Well, there’s no coyote in France and I had never seen one, especially live and wild.

“Holy Jesus, a coyote,” I said.

“Yep,” said Jimmy.

All right then: the pond’s level of water was slowly going down and I was square dancing with catfish and coyotes in Mississippi. Jimmy grinned. We then went back to work for the third pass.

It was getting harder and harder and I was panting and Jimmy too. The net was now hurting my hands and the sides of the pond were becoming steep and slippery while inside the net catfish were going berserk. It was still dark and we were working when I saw shadows pulling out of the bush. And those were no coyotes.

Black people.

I lugged hard on the net and by the time I was done catching fish by ears and putting them in drums, dozens over dozens of fish, each several pounds and more, my arm ached, my whole body ached. And I thought I was in a good shape… No wonder nobody ever fucked with Jimmy at the Radisson.

There was one more sanding round to go, so I paid attention.

Here’s what I saw. There were by now dozens of black people, men, women, young and old, all holding a bucket of some sort. Maybe old Joe was there but I couldn’t tell. They had come out of the bush, without noise, and they were just standing there, a few yards away, by the drums, not looking at us, Jimmy and me. Dozens of them and not one uttering a word: not a smile, not a giggle, stern faces all around. I didn’t dare say a thing so they knew not of my accent. Jimmy said it was time to finish the job.

So again we started at the other end of the pond and went on dragging the net. By then, there was so little water left, fish were fighting for their dear life. And it was now a steep slippery bank and my hands hurt and Jimmy was not making fun anymore of me hardly keeping up.

“Humpff,”, “humpff,” was all you could hear.

Only, by now, a tight wall of dark characters was right upon me, leaving me just enough space to maneuver the net. It was so fucking hard work and my hands were hurting and these people were so damn close, breezing on my neck and I didn’t want to fall in the water, that I jerked my elbow and told them to give me some goddamn space so I could work for Christ’s sake.

I guess they were surprised by my accent so they backed away some. Yet nobody said a word. By the time Jimmy and I were pulling the last fish out of the water, the bank was sharp and slippery and these people were, again, right upon us.

In the last net, I had noticed that there were other fish than just catfish. Brems, brought into the pond by birds carrying fish eggs. In France, some fishermen eat brems, so I know this fish can taste good but it’s so full of bones that hardly anyone eats it. Jimmy and I were pulling the catfish out of there and, in the remaining water of the pond, the net was now swarming with Brems. Only then did I understand the Brems were the reason why these people were here.

Still, ever so close to me, they were on my way as I fished out the catfish and manifested my anger. Jimmy just grinned. Eventually, the last catfish fished out, he told me to get out of the way. So I did.

This was like a signal. Jimmy and I hadn’t yet lit up a cigarette they all jumped into the muddy water with their bucket to get the most Brems they could. Men, women, youngens, older people. They were pushing and shoveling, it was violent, everybody slipping on the now steep wet bank.

Benevolent Jimmy seemed to relish the moment. Brems were for free. I saw kids cry, women plead, grown men forgetting all dignity for the sake of Brems. They rushed and pushed and slipped and skidded on the bank, fell in the water, got trampled filling their buckets. It was terrible, even more so that it was all without a word, kids crying in silence and women pleading with their eyes, grown men filling buckets, going “humpff.”

Eventually, very quickly, there was not a Brem left and these people took out like they came, in utter silence, back to the bush. The bank and the net, still in the water, had all become one single mud tank. I know, I had to clean the net later on.

“Let’s go have breakfast,” said Jimmy.

So we walked to his home, a bit away from the fish farm. By then it was a bright new day in Mississippi and we were welcomed by his lovely wife and two charming kids. All the muscle pain disappeared with the smell coming out of the kitchen. So we took our boots off, washed our hands real good, and sat down at the table.

That was homemade Dixie breakfast, no Hardees or Waffle House: sausage, grits, eggs, gravy, white bread, corn bread, biscuits, fruits and what not, orange juice and coffee. Honest breakfast for an honest bit of work. So I did honor the Southern hospitality and ate to my heart’s content and I didn’t care my hands were sour. And Jimmy grinned and me too and the wife and the kids just loved my accent.

I thought I was done and maybe could go home and sleep. But no. After breakfast, we had to go back, get the drums and prepare the tons of fish, first for the local restaurants, then for the people who had been lining up. There I was now the little helper in a fish market: Jimmy was selling and cashing in, I was preparing the orders. I can now gut a catfish like no other French motherfucker.

Among the clients, there were white and black folks, women, kids, Jimmy didn’t care. Sure enough, by 4 pm, all fish were gone and it took us another two hours to clean up the place.

Then it was time for dinner.

I ate again with good appetite.

I eventually got home that evening knowing I had a good Saturday work day behind me. That meant decent extra money, which could be useful when square dancing with Southern Belles.

By then, I knew Jimmy Clark had another three catfish ponds to sand.

So I was not worried about my immediate future and never mentioned Denis again.

Ellar Wise

Read part 1 of Catfish burning

Abstract by Ellar Wise

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